Water rate plan faces a protest

Written by Jessica Cejnar, The Triplicate September 30, 2013 05:48 pm

Since the city announced its plan to increase water rates last week, a group of people who led an unsuccessful protest against increased sewer rates in 2007 is back again.

Katherine Kelly, who participated in the 2007 campaign and is leading the current campaign, said residents simply can’t afford a 60 percent increase to their water bill.

People can submit protest letters to the city directly, but Kelly said she is encouraging people to send their letters to her so she can create a database of those who oppose the rate increase. She said her goal is to get protest letters from 3,000 parcels.

The additional revenue would pay for upgrades to make the system more reliable and earthquake resistant, as well as to offset current water fund deficits.

If rates aren’t increased, Crescent City’s water fund will be out of cash by January and it won’t be able to make a state loan payment in February, according to Interim Finance Director Susan Mayer. The water fund’s projected deficit was $417,000 when the city adopted its 2013-14 budget in June. The current projected deficit is $649,000, according to Mayer.

The Crescent City Council last week unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance that would increase monthly water rates by $6.16 — or 60 percent— in December for the average residential customer who uses 1,600 cubic feet of water per month. If approved, rates would then increase by $3.79 in 2014, $3.44 in 2015, 72 cents in 2016 and 74 cents in 2017, according to city staff.

Residents have an opportunity to protest the proposed rate increases through the Proposition 218 process. Passed by California voters in 1996, it allows property owners and other rate-payers to prevent a sewer or water rate increase if a protest letter is received by the city from over 50 percent of the affected parcels. 

“I’m not about sticking it to the city, I’m about sticking up for the people,” Kelly said. “We need 50 percent plus one, but they haven’t told us the 50 percent of what.”

City officials said on Friday they couldn’t provide information on the total number of parcels in the water district until Monday.

One protest per parcel may be submitted to the city, said City Attorney Bob Black. The letter can come from the property owner or a tenant who is directly responsible for his or her water bill, he said. Even if the water bill is in the landlord’s name, if it is stated in a tenant’s lease that he or she must pay for it, then that person too would also be able to submit a protest letter, Black said.

“You can have more than one customer on a parcel, and as I pointed out, you can have a customer that owns more than one parcel,” he said. “The best example is the harbor. The harbor is just a very few number of large parcels but on those large parcels are multiple customers who have ground leases from the harbor.”

The protests must be submitted to the city in writing before the end of a public hearing the Council will conduct Nov. 4 to discuss the water rates, Black said. 

“It can just be a sheet of notebook paper,” he said. “If they want to sit and listen and then decide to protest they can do that as long as they get it in before the gavel comes down and the mayor declares the public hearing closed.”

The city draws its water from an aquifer near the Smith River north of Pelican Bay State Prison. It flows through a chlorination building, under the prison, through an elevated tank off Wonder Stump Road and is then distributed to roughly 14,000 customers.

Increasing the water rates will put the city in a better position to pursue financing for projects on a five-year capital improvement plan, which includes a $530,450 seismic retrofit of the elevated water tank, Mayer told the Council.

If a Proposition 218 protest is successful, the city will have to come up with another way to meet the water system’s financial obligations, Black said. The city couldn’t enact another rate increase without going through another Proposition 218 protest process, he said.

The city has not changed its current water rates, which are $10.26 for residential customers who use 1,600 cubic feet of water per month, since 2002. Even if they are increased, Crescent City’s rates would be lower than other cities in the region such as Fort Bragg, Eureka, Arcata and Brookings, according to city officials.

There is a fixed rate for residents who use up to 500 cubic feet of water per month, according to the city’s staff report. There is no rate structure adjustment based on customers’ income levels, said City Manager Eugene Palazzo.

Kelly said she has contacted about 39 customers so far just by going door to door. She hopes to obtain a list of parcel numbers from the city that will make it easier to contact people. The response to the protest campaign has been largely positive so far, she said. 

“If you could only just walk with me one time, you’ll see people grabbing the clipboard out of my hand,” she said. “Sometimes I get stuck at the door for a few minutes because somebody wants to talk about it. We’re trying to help the people and the people out there know it and they thank us profusely.”

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